If you study the photographs of women en masse in the suffrage archive, it is the hat that dominates — whether laden with roses or topped with aggressive-looking albatross feathers. In 1909, women’s hats typically measured three feet high (trimmings included) and two feet wide, and their preposterous growth was linked, in part, to female politics.
Mrs Pankhurst insisted that if they were to win the nation over, suffragettes must ensure that they were the best-dressed, most alluring women at every social gathering. Last century’s New Woman in her masculine straw boater had created the caricature of unmarriageable spinsters in trilbies. This image had to be purged. And so, by personal example, Emmeline and her daughter Christabel promoted large, fashionable hats. If you were both powerful and feminine, went the message, then you had the best of both worlds.
Didn’t animal rights mean anything to Mrs Pankhurst? “No member of the WSPU divides her attention between suffrage and other social reforms,” she wrote in 1914. “There is not the slightest doubt that the women of Great Britain would have been enfranchised years ago had all the suffragists adopted this simple principle.”
Narrowness of focus was the suffragette leader’s ideal, and her foot soldiers had to be seen to obey the “Commander-in-Chief.” Mrs Pankhurst’s purple feather was a thing of beauty, representing her femininity — but it was also a symbol of power.
Header photo: copyright Museum of London
I’m on the Nancy Astor Express. We’re whizzing west out of Paddington
Victorian campaigner Emily Williamson was so incensed by the millinery trade’s use
Uneasy mingling: the Servants’ Ball at ITV’s Downton Abbey, where Lady Grantham
Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4
Hear all about Etta Lemon, the ‘Margaret Thatcher’ of the birding world. How did this remarkable character hone her campaigning skills, and why was she stabbed in the back by the men who took over the RSPB?
Secrets of the National Trust with Alan Titchmarsh (Channel 5)
Erddig Hall in North Wales was once home to the Yorkes — a family famously kind to their servants. Or were they? I uncovered the story of ‘thief cook’ Ellen Penketh, jailed in 1907 for allegedly stealing £500 from her insecure mistress Louisa Yorke.
Radio Gorgeous interview with Josephine Pembroke, talking twitchers (why are hardcore birders almost always men?), the mysterious workings of the RSPB (why wouldn’t they let me revisit their archives?) and Mrs Pankhurst’s penchant for fashion (why so many feathered hats?).